Buddhist Meditation as Art Practice

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Citation: Hsieh, Su-Lien (2010) Buddhist meditation as art practice: art practice as Buddhist meditation. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University. This version was downloaded from Northumbria Research Link: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/1942/ Northumbria University has developed Northumbria Research Link (NRL) to enable users to access the University’s research output. Copyright © and moral rights for items on NRL are retained by the individual author(s) and/or other copyright owners. Single copies of full items can be reproduced, displayed or performed, and given to third parties in any format or medium for personal research or study, educational, or not-for-profit purposes without prior permission or charge, provided the authors, title and full bibliographic details are given, as well as a hyperlink and/or URL to the original metadata page. The content must not be changed in any way. Full items must not be sold commercially in any format or medium without formal permission of the copyright holder. The full policy is available online: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/policies.html
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Buddhist Meditation as Art PracticeCitation: Hsieh, Su-Lien (2010) Buddhist meditation as art practice: art practice as Buddhist meditation. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.
This version was downloaded from Northumbria Research Link: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/1942/
Northumbria University has developed Northumbria Research Link (NRL) to enable users to access the University’s research output. Copyright ©  and moral rights for items on NRL are retained by the individual author(s) and/or other copyright owners. Single copies of full items can be reproduced, displayed or performed, and given to third parties in any format or medium for personal research or study, educational, or not-for-profit purposes without prior permission or charge, provided the authors, title and full bibliographic details are given, as well as a hyperlink and/or URL to the original metadata page. The content must not be changed in any way. Full items must not be sold commercially in any format or medium without formal permission of the copyright holder. The full policy is available online: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/policies.html
Su-Lien Hsieh
Su-Lien Hsieh
A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the
University of Northumbria at Newcastle for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
March 2010
I
Abstract
This thesis explores the impact of meditation on art practice. Its basic hypothesis is
that Buddhist meditation can expand creative capacity by enabling the practitioner to
transcend the limits of everyday sense experience and consciousness. Artists engaging in
meditation develop a closer, more aware relationship with their emptiness mind (kongxin),
freeing them from preconceptions and contexts that limit their artistic creation.
Because this practice-led research focuses on how to expand one‘s freedom as an
artist, I use two models to explore studio practice, then compare and contrast them with my
own prior approach. A year-by-year methodology is followed, as artistic practice develops
over time. The first model is studio practice in the UK, the second is Buddhist meditation
before artistic activity. The research took place over three years, each representing a
distinct area. Accordingly, in area 1 (the first year), I compared studio art practice in the UK
with post-meditation art practice; in area 2 (the second year), I compared studio art practice
in the UK with prostration practice at Bodh-gaya, India plus meditation before act activity; in
area 3 (the third year), I compared studio art practice in the UK with entering a month-long
meditation retreat in Taiwan before practicing art.
By Buddhist meditation I refer more specifically to insight meditation, which K. Sri
Dhammananda has described as follows:
Buddha offers four objects of meditation for consideration: body, feeling,
thoughts, and mental states. The basis of the Satipatthana (Pli, refers to a
foundation for a presence of mindfulness) practice is to use these four
objects for the development of concentration, mindfulness, and insight or
understanding of our-self and the world around you. Satipatthana offers the
most simple, direct, and effective method for training the mind to meet daily
tasks and problems and to achieve the highest aim: liberation. (K. Sri
II
Dhammananda 1987:59)
In my own current meditation practice before art practice, I sit in a lotus position and focus
on breathing in and breathing out, so that my mind achieves a state of emptiness and calm
and my body becomes relaxed yet fully energized and free. When embarking on artistic
activity after meditation, the practice of art then emerges automatically from this enhanced
body/mind awareness. For an artist from an Eastern culture, this post-meditation art seems
to differ from the practices of Western art, even those that seek to eliminate intention (e.g.
Pollock), in that the artist‘s action seem to genuinely escape cogito: that is, break free of
the rational dimensions of creating art. In my training and development as a studio artist, I
applied cogito all the time, but this frequently generated body/mind conflict, which became
most apparent after leaving the studio at the end of the day: I always felt exhausted, and
what was worse, the art that I created was somehow limited. However, my experience was
that Buddhist meditation, when applied before undertaking art practice, establishes
body/mind harmony and empties the mind. For this artist at least, this discovery seemed to
free my art as it emerged from emptiness through the agency of my energized hand. It was
this, admittedly highly personal, experience that led me to undertake the research that
informs this thesis.
III
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank my academic principal supervisor, Chris Dorsett for participating
in the group discussions on doctoral fine arts research for three years. I would also like to
thank my academic second supervisor Prof. Mary Mellor, for her enlightening guidance
throughout my doctoral study, for her professional and scholarly suggestions during our
discussions, and for her great patience in correcting and refining this dissertation.
I am deeply grateful to my Buddhist Master Chen-Huang Cheng () for his
compassion and enlightening instruction on many aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.
I wish to thank Thomas E. Smith, Ph.D. for proofreading this dissertation and
translating the text of the short exhibition article in the Appendix from Chinese to English.
I wish also to thank the monk Choge Tizeng Rinpoche (the Dalai Lama‘s Master), Prof.
Cheng-Hwa Tsang (), Sheng-Chin Lin (), Ph.D., and Mr. Guang-Hao Hang (
) ( for providing help and encouragement at crucial times during my study).
I received much assistance from the Jamchen Lhakhang Monastery in Nepal, The
Tibetan Monastery in India, and the Ci-Yun Monastery in Taiwan. For this beneficial
assistance, I am extremely grateful, since without it none of my experimental work would
have been realized.
Special thanks go to my colleagues, John Lavell, Andrew McNiven, Christina Kolaiti,
Jolande Bosch, Hiroho Oshima, Hadi Shobeirinejad, Michael Johnson, and all those who
studied with me, making my time enjoyable, and providing many valuable insights.
Special thanks go also to my friends Su-Shiang Lin (), Zhao-Xuan Zhou (
), Ta-Rong Shi () , Miao-Hua Lin (), Yi-Shann Shi () , Roang-Gui
Sha (), Da-Wei Xu (), Paoling Huang (), Mei-Lien Jin(,
Meng-Yao Ma (), Tan Ya-Ting (), Lucia Tang (), and Christopher
Medico for their support, assistance and encouragement during my student days.
I reserve my deepest thanks for my parents, brother and sister for their support during
this study. It is to them that I dedicate this dissertation.
IV
Directory
1.1 Background, aim, and questions .............................................................................. 1
1.2 Methodology ............................................................................................................ 1
Chapter 2 ........................................................................................................... 16
2.1 Introduction ............................................................................................................ 16
2.3 The relationship between the lotus and the circle .................................................. 18
2.4 Day-to-day studio art practice ................................................................................ 23
2.5 The methodology of Buddhist meditation practice ................................................ 28
2.6 The physical aspect of Buddhist meditation .......................................................... 32
2.7 Meditation practice as art practice ......................................................................... 33
2.8 Overcoming intuition ............................................................................................. 34
2.10 Comparing with other artists: Stuart Herring ....................................................... 46
V
2.12 Chapter Summary................................................................................................. 57
2.13 Acknowledgements .............................................................................................. 58
Chapter 3 ........................................................................................................... 59
3.1 Introduction ............................................................................................................ 59
3.2 Seeing and Unseeing: Is it Coffee? Or is it the Bodhisattva? ................................ 59
3.3 Further thoughts on intentions and names, images and limits ............................... 69
3.4 Residence in a Tibetan monastery ......................................................................... 73
3.5 Is Wine the Colour, or Is It the Bodhisattva? ......................................................... 81
3.6 Being becoming nothingness: pre-meditation practice in invisible drawings ....... 86
3.7 Monastic residence, Nepal ..................................................................................... 91
3.8 Further philosophical reflections: consciousness and the senses ........................... 98
3.9. Conclusion .......................................................................................................... 100
Chapter 4 ......................................................................................................... 101
4.1 Introduction .......................................................................................................... 101
4.2 Emptiness (nothingness) and phenomena: initial attempts to practice the sand
mandala during monastery residence ......................................................................... 101
4.3 Interview with a monk ......................................................................................... 106
4.4 Mandalas, compoundedness, and the emergence of phenomena from emptiness
.................................................................................................................................... 107
4.6 Residence at Jamchen Lhakhang Monastery for calligraphy practice ................. 119
4.7 A Month-long Calligraphy Retreat (September 2007) ........................................ 126
4.8 What am I to conclude from this research? .......................................................... 130
4.9 Chapter Summary................................................................................................. 135
VI
5.3 General conclusions ............................................................................................. 145
Fig. 1.5: Bodhisattva Padmapani ....................................................................................... 9
Fig. 1.6A: Pre-meditation calligraphy practice .................................................................. 12
Fig. 1.6B: Post-meditation calligraphy practice................................................................. 14
Fig. 2.1: Lotus .................................................................................................................. 16
Fig. 2.3: The emptiness of sacred lotus ........................................................................... 16
Figs. 2.4 and 2.5: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005 ................................................ 19
Fig. 2.6: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005............................................................... 19
Figs. 2.7 and 2.8: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005-2006 ....................................... 19
Fig. 2.9: The dual inner/outer aspect of circles, 2005 ....................................................... 20
Fig. 2.10: Inward and outward arcs in the human body/mind ........................................... 21
Fig. 2.11: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005-2006 .................................................... 22
Fig. 2.12: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006 ............................................................. 22
Fig. 2.13: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006 ............................................................. 23
Fig. 2.14: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006 ............................................................. 23
VII
Fig. 2.17: From post-meditation art practice, 2006 ........................................................... 27
Fig. 2.18: Sulien seated in meditation .............................................................................. 29
Fig. 2.19: Letting everything go in meditation, before art practice, 2005-2006 .................. 30
Fig. 2.20: Pre-meditation, 2006 ........................................................................................ 31
Fig. 2.21: Post-meditation, 2006 ...................................................................................... 31
Fig. 2.22: Zen and the Art of Happiness ........................................................................... 32
Fig. 2.23: Time (August 2003) .......................................................................................... 32
Fig. 2.24: Brain patterns during meditation ....................................................................... 33
Fig. 2.25: Post-meditation, 2006 ...................................................................................... 33
Fig. 2.26: Pre-meditation, 2006 ........................................................................................ 35
Fig. 2.27: Post-meditation, 2006 ...................................................................................... 35
Fig. 2.28: André Masson, Automatic Drawing (1924) ....................................................... 37
Fig. 2.29: Jackson Pollock, 1950 ..................................................................................... 38
Fig. 2.30: Jackson Pollock, Number 23 (1948) ................................................................. 38
Fig. 2.31: Willem de Kooning, Untitled (1988) .................................................................. 42
Fig. 2.32: Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) ........................... 43
Fig. 2.33: Alastair MacLennan, at undisclosed territory2 (2008) ................................... 44
Fig. 2.34: Marina Abramovi, The Artist is Present (2010) ................................................ 45
Fig. 2.35: Stuart Brisley, Helsinki Vanitas (1996) .............................................................. 45
Fig. 2.36: Stuart Herring in performance, Newcastle, 2008 .............................................. 46
Fig. 2.37: Stuart Herring in performance, Newcastle, 2008 .............................................. 47
Fig. 2.38: John Lavell, Wound Pattern Analysis (2007-2008), detail; on paper ................. 49
Fig. 2.39: John Lavell, Sharp Force Injury (2008), detail; on paper .................................. 50
Fig. 2.40: A model of different ways to look for creativity .................................................. 56
VIII
Fig. 3.1: Bodhisattva Padmapani, Ajanta Caves no. 1 ...................................................... 60
Figs. 3.2, 3.3, 3.4: Three copies of the Bodhisattva Padmapani (pre-meditation, 2005) ... 61
Fig. 3.5: Is it Coffee or the Bodhisattva Padmapani? No. 3 (2006) ................................... 61
Fig. 3.6: Is it Coffee or the Bodhisattva Padmapani? No. 2 (2005) ................................... 61
Fig. 3.7: Cecilia Edefalk: Another Movement, 1990 (from a series of 7 paintings) ............ 66
Fig. 3.8: Cecelia Edefalk Another Movement series in exhibition ................................... 66
Fig. 3.9: Marcel Duchamp Fountain (1917) ...................................................................... 70
Fig. 3.10: Bodh-Gaya, India ............................................................................................. 73
Fig. 3.11: The Bodhi tree (pipal tree) ................................................................................ 73
Fig. 3.12: Bodh-Gaya, India ............................................................................................. 74
Fig. 3.13: Sulien in prostration practice, Bodh-Gaya ........................................................ 75
Fig. 3.14: Tibetan monk prostrating, Bodh-Gaya .............................................................. 76
Fig. 3.15: Coffee / Bodhisattva (post-meditation, 2006, India) .......................................... 78
Fig. 3.16: Coffee / Bodhisattva (post-meditation, 2006, India) .......................................... 78
Figs. 3.17, 3.18: Coffee / Bodhisattva (post-meditation, 2006, India) ............................... 79
Fig. 3.19: Bodhisattva (post-meditation art practice, 2007) .............................................. 81
Fig. 3.20: Glass of Rioja ................................................................................................... 82
Figs. 3.21 and 3.22: Is Wine the Colour or Is it the Bodhisattva? (2007) .......................... 82
Fig. 3.23: Henri Rousseau, Virgin Forest with Setting Sun (1910) .................................... 84
Fig. 3.24: Wine / Bodhisattva (post-meditation, 2007) ...................................................... 86
Fig. 3.25: Chinese paper under ordinary and UV light ...................................................... 87
Fig. 3.26: From pre-meditation general studio practice in Newcastle, 2006 ...................... 87
Fig. 3.27, 28: Pre-meditation art practice (2006) .............................................................. 89
Fig. 3.29: Post-meditation (October 2006) ....................................................................... 92
Fig. 3.30, 31: Pre-meditation (2006) ................................................................................. 94
IX
Fig. 3.33: Pre-meditation (Oct., 2006) .............................................................................. 95
Fig. 3.34: Post-meditation (2006, India) ........................................................................... 95
Fig. 3.35: Showing the Bodhisattva with the UV light ....................................................... 96
Fig. 3.36: Post-meditation, Nepal (2006) .......................................................................... 97
Fig. 4.1: Emptiness and phenomena: sand mandala after repeated practice ................. 102
Fig. 4.2: Preparation for a sand mandala ....................................................................... 104
Fig. 4.3: Sand mandala details ....................................................................................... 104
Fig. 4.4: Proceeding from the center .............................................................................. 104
Fig. 4.5: Making borders ................................................................................................ 105
Fig. 4.6: Working close to the sand ................................................................................ 105
Fig. 4.7: Working close to the sand ................................................................................ 105
Fig. 4.8: Celebration upon completing the mandala ....................................................... 109
Fig. 4.9: Sweeping away the sand ................................................................................. 109
Fig. 4.10: Leaving the scene .......................................................................................... 109
Fig. 4.11: Contemplating the dusty remainder ................................................................ 110
Fig. 4.12: Calligraphy writing practice (non-meditation), France, 2004 ........................... 114
Fig. 4.13: Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum‘ (pre-meditation), October 2005 ..................... 116
Fig. 4.14: Smudged characters (pre-meditation), 2005 .................................................. 117
Fig. 4.15: From pre-meditation practice, 2006 ................................................................ 118
Fig. 4.16a: The Heart Sutra, 2005 (from pre-meditation practice)................................... 119
Fig. 4.16b: The Heart Sutra, 2005 (from pre-meditation practice)................................... 119
Fig. 4.17: From post-meditation practice, 2006 .............................................................. 120
Fig. 4.18: From post-meditation practice, Jamchen Lhakhang Monastery (Nov., 2006) .. 120
Fig. 4.19: From post-meditation practice, 2006 .............................................................. 121
Fig. 4.20: Calligraphy of the monk Hongyi (1880-1942) ................................................. 122
Fig. 4.21: Calligraphy of the monk Hongyi (1880-1942) ................................................. 122
X
Fig. 4.24: From calligraphy practice, post-meditation, October 2007 .............................. 130
Fig. 4.25: Calligraphy practice, post-meditation, October 2007 ...................................... 131
Fig. 4.26: Post-retreat art practice, 2007 ........................................................................ 134
Fig. 4.27a: Post-retreat art practice, 2007 ...................................................................... 135
Fig. 4.27b: Post-retreat art practice, 2007 ...................................................................... 135
1
1.1 Background, aim, and questions
I have always wanted to attain freedom of art. By freedom of art‘ I do not mean doing
whatever I want, but rather the kind of freedom from mental and physical constraints that in
turn permits freer creativity in my painting and calligraphy. I was therefore motivated to
investigate an approach to art practice that differed from what I had learned in my earlier
artistic training (at, for example, Winchester School of Art, 1997-98) by the application of
Buddhist meditation.
The purpose of this research, then, has been to investigate whether practicing
Buddhist meditation can truly develop freedom of art practice, and how this freedom of art
practice differs from general art practices. While conducting this research, I always asked
myself, How can I free my art?‘ and How can I improve my daily art practice?‘
1.2 Methodology
To investigate meditation‘s effect on art practice, I experimented with three different
approaches to art practice in three different environments and compared them with
conventional, day-to-day studio art practice. This methodology is widely known as action
research.‘
What is action research in art? Wanda T. May, Janet Masters, Jean McNiff and Jack
Whitehead describe it as follows: Action research is the study and enhancement of one‘s
own practice‘ (May 1993:114).
[T]he project proceeds through a spiral of cycles of planning, acting, observing
and reflecting, with each of these activities being systematically and
self-critically implemented and interrelated (Masters 1995).
2
Supporting practitioners, as they engage with their enquiries and learn about
their work, and become deeply involved in learning about mine, have helped
me to see that generating theories about work must begin within the work. It is
no use importing preconceived ideas of how practices will fall out: things simply
do not work like that. Creating ideas begins with practice; it is important to
critique one‘s own theory against the wider theories in the literature, but it
seems self-evident that the kind of theory, which will help us improve our social
situations, has to arise from learning about the practice from within the practice
itself (This is not, however, to deny that propositional theories can prove
valuable insights which can be integrated within our logics of practice.)
This view is quite contrary to the dominant opinion that an empirical body of
knowledge exists which can be applied to practice. (McNiff and Whitehead
2002:4-5)
Action research is a form of enquiry that enables practitioners everywhere to
investigate and evaluate their work. They ask: What am I doing? What do I
need to improve? How do I improve it?‘ Their accounts of practice show how
they are trying to improve their own learning, and influence the learning of
others. These accounts come to stand as their own practical theories of
practice, from which others can learn if they wish. (McNiff & Whitehead 2002:7)
I integrated my art practice within Buddhist meditation practice and investigated
different levels of meditation in order to improve my art practice. My methodology thus
utilized meditation to investigate art practice. Moreover, within this
meditation-as-art-practice‘ I conducted these experiments at three different levels, in three
different environments, to compare them with ordinary studio art practice.
Moreover, each level of the investigative process may be viewed as a spiralling cycle
3
of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting on my art practice. The process did in fact
closely parallel Kurt Lewin‘s description of research that proceeds in a spiral of steps each
of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, and fact-finding about the result of the
action‘ (Lewin 1946, in Hart and Bond 1995:15). This basic format of a spiral of steps lives
on in the design of many action research studies. A simple diagram of the action research
spiral is shown below:
Diagram from:http://www.rdsu.soton.ac.uk/documents/Action_research_newsletter.doc
During this spiralling cycle of action research, I continuously asked myself: What am I
practicing? What do I need to improve? How do I improve it?‘ and finally, Does my art
demonstrate the effectiveness of meditation-as-art-practice?‘ Although the questions
seemed to arise naturally from the practice, they were now also supported by the action
research.
I should add that action research in art and Buddhist meditation have certain
similarities in terms of process and purpose, and so they are quite compatible. It is likely
Planning
Observing/
Evaluating
http://www.rdsu.soton.ac.uk/documents/Action_research_newsletter.doc
4
that few conventionally trained artists realize this. However, Ken Wilbur, the proponent of
what he calls Integral Theory,‘ which draws heavily on Buddhist thought, has described
meditation in terms that should immediately bring to mind the action research spiral:
Meditation is, if anything, a sustained instrumental path of transcendence. And
since--as we saw--transcendence and development are synonymous, it follows
that meditation is simply sustained development or growth. It is not primarily a
way to reverse things but a way to carry them on. It is the natural and orderly
unfolding of successively higher-order unities, until there is only Unity, until all
potential is actual, until all the ground-unconscious is unfolded as
Consciousness. (Wilber 1999b:109)
Therefore I envision that the main contribution of this research is in demonstrating how
Buddhist meditation practices may be applied to art in order to yield positive results that
differ from those achieved by Western artists who have sought to subvert the grip of cogito
on their creative practices. An example would be the Surrealist painter Andre Masson who
explored the potential of automatic drawing and, in order to generate reduced states of
consciousness, experimented with both drugs and long periods without food and sleep.
Later in the thesis I will explore examples of Western artists such as Masson who
challenged the controlling influence of the rational mind as well as some contemporary
practitioners who promote forms of art based on Buddhist teaching. However, all these
examples differ from my project in that, as far as I am able to ascertain, the ambition is
always to produce artworks. In contrast, my ambition is to conflate art production and
meditation as a Buddhist technique with Buddhist, rather than artistic, goals. Indeed, in this
emergent Buddhist practice meditative and art processes revolve around each other in a
continuous upward spiral.
This spiral process, in the present research project, took place at overlapping times in
5
three areas of my artistic endeavour. It may be diagrammatized as follows: (see fig.1.2)
Area 1: Circle drawings
A1 Studio art practice


Area 3: Sand mandalas, calligraphy
A3 Studio art practice
Fig. 1.2: This research spiral process.
In Area 1, I focused on drawing circles symbolic of the lotus. Area 2 consists of my
paintings of Bodhisattva or Buddha in wine, coffee, and invisible media; Area 3 consists of
my work with sand mandalas and calligraphy. Each area involves art practice before and
after some form of meditation practice, and each corresponds to a chapter in the present
study.
6
1.3 The plan of the present work
In Chapter Two (corresponding to Area 1 of the diagram above), I compare the
ordinary studio art practice of drawing circles on one hand with day-to-day meditation
within day-to-day studio art on the other. The drawing of circles may seem extremely
simple, but the act contains many layers of meaning and implication. Besides the circle‘s
traditional Buddhist association with the lotus, there are additional philosophical and
historical associations in the West (for example, ancient Egypt), not to mention the
practical considerations involved in the act of creating one. One of the aims of circle
drawing is to discover and mark off what is internal and what is external. However, the
repeated drawing of circles is also an act of meditation in which one concentrates on the
formless and mindless. I eliminate any goal, even mindfulness of mindlessness, and time,
space and suffering disappear.
My art practice thus reduces the distinctions of body / mind and inner / outer as well
as delimiting influences. The act of circle-making (creating a distinction) and the act of
meditation (eliminating distinction), as they are repeated, leads to moments in which unity
is created, image and consciousness are combined, the experience of ego is reduced, and
I lose the bounds of time and space. The circle becomes a metaphor for the freeing of the
body / mind from the boundaries of intuition, the achievement of a balanced stillness.
In Chapter Two I pause to consider repetition in art practice in the light of an idea that
Edmund Husserl discusses in Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of
Logic (1900-1901): the unity of perception and lived experience through objective time. It is
an idea that I can appreciate, based on my own experience, but I find that Husserl does
not go on to prescribe how one might unify that perception. Although Husserl finds that
time forms the basis for unity between the intentional object of perception and the ego, he
regards the human being as natural, a being that cannot escape the sphere of the problem
of object perception and the single stream of ego-consciousness. In his Idea: General
Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1931), he discusses the self-suspending of the
7
phenomenologist,‘ being disconnected from the natural world, and eidetic spheres of the
transcendent order, which would surely bring pure‘ consciousness, but even so, he
regards the human being as remaining grounded in the natural world of phenomenology.
Husserl‘s point of view forms a sharp contrast with the Buddha Sakyamuni‘s teaching
that sensory perception (seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, touching) is illusion, and that
the mind of consciousness is one of emptiness. To achieve the mind of emptiness, Buddha
taught meditation, which involves full awareness of breathing,‘ a practice that is very
immediately physical. There was no mind / body division for him. This seemed to provide a
ready model, so I decided to integrate meditation into my art practice and see what
happened.
A key aspect of repeating the circular brush strokes that I derived from the symbolic
lotus (as introduced in Chapter 1 above) is that each repeated action is new. It is similar to
breathing in that with each cycle of inhalation and exhalation, the breath is different. Each
breath exists in its own moment, and each moment is new. Likewise, each repetition of my
circles is new and never quite the same. The circles may show the apparent phenomena of
internality and externality, but I am not looking for phenomena. Rather, I am looking for the
inner stillness of each moment from which I create art. The circles may be understood to
represent the mind at discrete moments in time; each is similar, but not quite the same.
They are neither one nor many, and any meaning contained therein is deemed to be held
in the ego consciousness.
In Chapter Two I thus compare two kinds of products: those coming from ordinary
studio practice, which emphasizes practice through repetition, and those coming from the
blend of meditation with ordinary studio practice. We shall see that the latter become
near-perfect circles (see Figs. 1.3 and 1.4 below).
8
Fig. 1.3: Pre-meditation/art practice/2005 (Area 1A)
Fig. 1.4: Post-meditation/art practice/2005 (Area 1B)
The final part of Chapter 2 includes an interview with my classmate John Lavell about
his research, entitled: The power of naming: co-option in studio-based creative practice‘.
My art practice of repeated action is very similar to Lavell‘s, as both of us intend to
research the phenomenology of time-consciousness through action across long stretches
of time.
Chapter Three is divided into two sections. The first section discusses my initial studio
practice in the creation of my Seeing and Unseeing: Is It Coffee or Is It Bodhisattva?
between September 2005 and July 2006. I was extremely attracted to an ancient painting
of the Bodhisattva Pandmapani (Fig. 1.5) reproduced in Benoy K. Behl‘s The Ajanta Caves:
Artistic Wonder of Ancient Buddhist India (1956). I thus made three copies of this image,
using coffee as a medium. Through repetition, I was able to explore the relationship
between ego-consciousness and intuition in the body/mind.
9
Fig. 1.5: Bodhisattva Padmapani
While executing these paintings, I asked myself why each copy could never be the
same. How would the variance relate to the state of the body/mind? If I remain the same
person, with the same body/mind and the same habits, why is each painting different?
Who, then, am I? Am I one or many?
I chose coffee as my medium because it is something that people drink and smell
every day. Although they might not see the Bodhisattva image every day, and in fact might
never have seen this particular Bodhisattva image before, people would still be able to
recognize the Bodhisattva while not recognizing the coffee. Clearly, the body/mind is
separate from the image. If so, where is the body/mind? We are thus forced to observe the
I‘ or me‘ as being inside cognition and sense perception. The repetitive act is a process of
exploring the supporting conditions for knowledge and vision ascribing reality to things that
are seen, deep-rooted obstructive habits (often taking the guise of intuitions or
assumptions), and so on. Therefore, this ambiguous experiment allowed me to understand
the problem of people‘s perceptions of the body/mind and consciousness.
Section one of Chapter Three goes on to discuss my experience of residing in a
Tibetan monastery at Bodhgaya, India, and at a monastery at Kathmandu, Nepal from
October to November 2006. At Bodhgaya, I participated in an exhaustive ritual that
10
required 10,000 prostration sequences over 13 days. Completing 1,000 prostrations took
more than eight hours per day. Again, this ritual action may itself be considered a kind of
meditation, since there is no time left for anything else. It is an intense practice for
developing emptiness of mind.
Through physical action in meditation, one eliminates contingencies, limits, the seeing
of the eyes, and the causes of intention; eventually one develops the emptiness of mind
(even of seeing) needed for art practice. The idea of seeing and unseeing‘ in art practice
recalls Sartre‘s idea of belief as the consciousness of belief. Belief-consciousness is
similar to sub-consciousness or Husserl‘s pre-given consciousness. At the same time, it
recalls Buddha‘s teaching about the eye seeing the darkness of the bright moon. Even on
a moonless night the mind will tell the eyes that the moon is still there. Hence in this
section I will also discuss the problems of sense-consciousness and material
consciousness.
I then resumed working in my studio at Taiwan, and from November to December
2006, I once more picked up the theme of Buddha and Bodhisattva painting. I executed an
album of approximately 29 images of the Buddha in coffee, and an album of approximately
27 or 28 images of the Bodhisattva in wine. As the titles of the works indicate, however,
they ask whether the colour is produced by the coffee and wine—the point being that the
media and the works, like all objects, are in the world of phenomena, and that the truth of
emptiness is emptiness. As we shall see, the works produced post-meditation exhibit a
greater harmony between Bodhisattva‘ or Buddha‘ on one hand and coffee‘ or wine‘ on
the other. One might say, in Marshall McLuhan‘s famous phrase, the medium has become
the message (McLuhan & Lapham, 1964:7).
In the second section of Chapter Three, I discuss an experiment with a series of art
works entitled Being Becoming Nothingness. At the same time I produced the coffee
Bodhisattva paintings, I was conducting another experiment: I produced a painting of the
Bodhisattva in Bristol Fluorescent paint. Without the presence of UV light, the unassisted
11
eye will see nothing more than a fuzzy outline. Because the image is so hard to see, the
mind‘s eye‘ will go on to construct its own image, which may be quite fanciful. This
demonstrates that when the body-based seeing subject has lost direction, the
ego-consciousness begins to steer it. The eye will continue to scan the fuzzy image up and
down in a wavelike motion, but the seeing is controlled by ego-consciousness. I, then,
practice meditation before art practice.
Chapter Four discusses the third area of my artistic practice: calligraphy. I have been
trained in the Chinese art of calligraphy since childhood, but for many years I felt frustrated
at the seeming impossibility of making any further improvement. Again, a crucial
transformation took place during my experience of retreat and intensive meditation in India
and Nepal. Before this, while still in Newcastle (September 2005 to January 2007), I had
completed several dozen calligraphic works on Chinese paper, as well as one small album
of calligraphy. After India and Nepal, I resumed the practice of calligraphy while also doing
a solo retreat of my own, in a house located in Yangmingshan National Park, Taiwan. This
resulted in the production, again, of several dozen calligraphic works and one small album.
Chapter Four is divided into two sections. The first revisits the development of
body/mind unity through sand mandala practice and discusses the main point of
concentration-breathing in and breathing out-in greater depth. At Jamchen Lhakhang
Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, I received further training in meditation, specifically
toward achieving unity of body/mind consciousness and emptiness of mind in art practice,
by studying the practice of making a sand mandala. The making of a sand mandala
demands absolute concentration, a focus on maintaining steady breathing, and the
elimination of extraneous images from the mind. The making of a sand mandala is
extremely challenging, because if you keep your hand too close, your breath will make the
sand spread everywhere; if you try holding your breath, then you soon become
light-headed and blurry-eyed. However, stretching your arm out and keeping your hand
distant is not an option, because then it becomes impossible to deposit the sand grains in
12
their proper place. Focusing on the control of breath is thus absolutely necessary,
otherwise the mind becomes distracted by these considerations of the hand‘s position, its
handling of the sand, and so on. By entering the meditative state and focusing on the
breath, one empties the mind, makes it still—and only then does the creation of the sand
mandala become possible. Philosophically speaking, it is a demonstration of
phenomena—the visual field and tactile field‘ (Husserl [1907] 1997:68) emerging from
emptiness.
In the second section of Chapter Four, I compare my pre- and post-retreat calligraphic
practice and the works produced. I also discuss my retreat at Yangmingshan. As indicated
above, during my conventional day-to-day studio work in Newcastle, I became increasingly
frustrated at my lack of development in calligraphy. Even those unfamiliar with Chinese
calligraphy would be able to discern the problem I was experiencing with my calligraphic
practice. Figure 1.6A shows a page of Chinese characters that look both heavy and static.
Fig. 1.6A: Pre-meditation calligraphy practice
At this stage, because the hand that holds the brush still lacks a genuine fluidity of
movement, the lines themselves lack the fluid grace that is so essential to the calligraphic
art, to the point that they sometimes become quavery. Moreover, there is a certain
13
unevenness or imbalance in the way the characters are spread across the paper. This
indicates that my mind was overly preoccupied with line and form, and with conscious
attempts to control them. I failed to attain the unity of perception‘ that would enable me to
take in the entirety of the paper before me—both the black forms and the white voids.
The action research or retreat into Chinese calligraphy took place from October to
December 2008 on Yangmingshan, where I was able to find a place of solitude conducive
to the combined practice of meditation and art. On Yangmingshan I practiced chanting,
insight meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and prostration, and in each I
adopted the breathing exercises I had learned. Therefore in Chapter Four I compare these
exercises, citing sutras on breathing and meditation, with techniques of Chinese brush
painting and calligraphy.
As I emptied my mind of distractions and achieved higher states of awareness
through meditation, and as I released myself from the restraints of ego-consciousness, I
could reach the state of emptiness and selflessness from which the practice of art could
develop and grow in a manner like that of traditional Buddhist descriptions of the lotus. The
consciousness of art practice emerged from and balanced with the non-consciousness of
meditation (see Figs. 1.6B and 1.7).
14
Fig. 1.6B: Post-meditation calligraphy practice
Meditation is, if anything, a sustained instrumental path of transcendence, and even
though in practice it is not easy to recognize such metaphysical changes to the body/mind,
they will, I maintain, be manifest in the practice of art. That is, if transcendence is the
attainment of a high level of body/mind awareness and development, then meditation is a
means toward sustained development or growth in everyday creative life. The calligraphic
works that I produced during this period show marked improvement.
Fig. 1.7: Post-retreat calligraphy practice, 2008
15
In Chapter Five I offer my final conclusions, answering my starting questions, How
can I experience freedom through my art?‘ (that is, arrive at a point at which my practice as
an artist is not bound by material, physical or mental conditions), and, How can I improve
my daily art practice?‘ (that is, how can I develop a creative routine in which, on a
day-to-day basis, I make my mind still and empty?). The answer stems from this
combination of Buddhist meditation and art, which allows the art to emerge from
nothingness.
I attach an appendix discussing an exhibition of mine entitled The art practice of 0 and
1.‘ It includes a personal statement accompanying the exhibition as well as the text of a
statement written by the curator, Jau-lan Guo (Thomas E. Smith translated these into
English).
16
Chapter 2
Repetitive Action
2.1 Introduction
This chapter describes the symbolism of the lotus in Buddhism, my initial research
into breathing meditation, and the transformation in my art practice of the lotus into a circle
that is then repeated, in an process that may be described as meditative on the one hand
and repetitive, an act of endurance, on the other. I will then go on to discuss other artists
who have adopted similar ideas and techniques.
2.2 The lotus
Fig. 2.1: Lotus
Fig. 2.2: Lotus pod Fig. 2.3: The emptiness of sacred lotus
According to the Avatamsaka-Sutra (Flower Ornament Scripture), one of the
best-known Buddhist scriptures, The world of the lotus flower is the land where the
17
Rocana becomes the Buddha. There are a myriad countries for each lotus flower.‘ (Taisho
Tripitaka, T40, No. 1813, p. 605c14) Another scripture, the Wuliang qingjing jing (Scripture
on Immeasurable Clarity and Stillness, a part of the Shorter Sukhavativyuha or Amitabha
Sutra), states, The Buddha of Immeasurable Clarity and Stillness is born in the lotus flower
in the pond of seven treasures.‘ (Taisho Tripitika, T12, No. 361, p. 291c26) In Buddhism,
the lotus flower symbolizes the pure land of perfect joy and rebirth. The fundamental
scripture for the Tiantai sect of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, is the Saddharma
Pundarika Sutra (Dharma Blossom Sutra), and the specific blossom‘ is the lotus. The
wonder of the lotus flower is that it can represent the way all things can live; as shown in
Fig. 2.1, the lotus grows from mud, but the blossom is perfectly unsullied and pure.
Moreover, because the stems and the seed pods of the lotus have holes in them, as can be
seen in Figs. 2.2 and Fig.2.3, it can represent the idea of the emptiness at the heart of all
things.
While the Buddhist symbolic meaning of the lotus originated in ancient Indian religious
thought, the use of the lotus symbol and lotus patterns were already widespread in ancient
Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. Representations of the lotus changed as these traditions
interacted and influenced one another. The scholar of Buddhist aesthetics Lin Liang-yi
writes in Adornments and Patterns in Buddhist Aesthetics that early Buddhists based the
importance of the lotus flower on plant fertility.‘ (Lin Liang-yi, 1992:72) The Shennong
bencao jing (Shennong’s Herbal Classic), which dates back to the Warring States period,
contains a description of the health-preserving effects of medicine made of lotus root. In his
Bencao gangmu (Outline of Materia Medica), Li Shizhen (1518-1593) lavished even more
praise on the lotus flower: The lotus flower grows in mud but is not sullied by it; it lives in
water, but is not drowned by it. The root, stem, flower and seed all differ from common
things. Their purity can be used to cure, and everyone will benefit thereby.‘ (Li Shizhen,
Bencao gangmu, fasc. 33, p. 20, Siku quanshu ed.) He also provides ample descriptions of
the lotus flower‘s curative effects on the body.
18
The lotus flower‘s long history may also be glimpsed through the archaeological
record. Lotus seeds dating back to the Neolithic period 4,000 years ago have been found
at a site in Yuhang, Zhejiang province. Carbonized food and two lotus seeds have been
found on a platform at a Yangshao Culture site discovered in Dahe Village in the northern
part of Zhengzhou, Henan. Measurements suggest that these finds date back 5,000 years.
Finally, a 10 million-year-old petrified lotus flower has been found in the Qaidam Basin. No
wonder the lotus flower has been called a living fossil‘ among plants.
Throughout human history, and at many places around the world, the lotus has been
represented in art, which indicates that people have always felt strongly attracted to this
plant. Painters have thus used their fertile imaginations to imbue their lotus images with
poetic meanings, suggestive of regional lore and religious beliefs. Among cultures
influenced by Buddhism, with its rich lotus symbolism, artists for centuries have spent
considerable energy creating lotus images, and so it has become a visual icon with unique
significance. Likewise within the Chinese painting tradition, which emphasized the linear
qualities of our visual world and the use of brush and ink to express states of mind, there is
a long history of expressing the spiritual quality of the lotus.
2.3 The relationship between the lotus and the circle
As a Buddhist artist who grew up in the so-called country of lotus,‘ I have long been
aware that lotus root, when cut, shows an empty hole, and that the stem has a similar
cavity running from root to flower. Even the central pod of the flower, once the seeds are
removed, shows a beautiful pattern of empty holes. Of course, these cavities always
reminded me of the state of emptiness that I hoped to reach eventually through meditation,
and in fact the plant as a whole already represented for me the stillness at the centre of
experience. Thus I was inspired to make drawings based on the lotus plant, particularly the
flower (see Figs. 2.4 to 2.8 below).
19
Fig. 2.6: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005
Figs. 2.7 and 2.8: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005-2006
I explored the lotus by drawing the circle over and over again. The individual circle is
an abstraction of the lotus blossom in its fullness, while the multitude of circles together
suggests the holes in a lotus pod, so in this regard these circles held appeal for me as a
kind of two-tiered abstraction—at once a lotus cross-section and a macro, bird‘s-eye view
of a lotus pond. Once I recognized the two-tiered nature of this abstraction, I was further
attracted to it, since the individual circles then became figure‘ and ground‘ at the same
20
time: are they (solid) flowers, or are they empty holes? Meanwhile, each circle that I drew
helped me understand the ever-transient flux of the body/mind, which contrasted with the
stillness I experienced through my experiments in meditation practice. My interest in the
meditative potential of the circle is, perhaps, a version of the ancient tradition that links the
simple circle to depictions of the Dharma eye in Buddhist art.
Fig. 2.9: The dual inner/outer aspect of circles, 2005
Thus when I began to draw the circle I tried to create a shape that is very simple and
very complicated at the same time (Fig. 2.8). When my eyes focused on the curving line
that I was drawing, on the one hand my eyes could follow the forming circle as a single
shape—I already saw before my eyes a simple ring-like form. On the other hand, there
simultaneously appeared an inner and outer shape to the completed form—I now saw a
double presence, a complicated interaction between two types of circle—an outside ring
and an inside space (see Fig. 2.9, which illustrates black rings and pink, imperfect inner
circles). These dual mental perceptions were approximate, and they always resulted in
approximate shapes: neither the outer ring nor the inner circle was perfectly circular in the
geometric sense. But this lack of geometric perfection was precisely what allowed a simple
repeated shape to become an experiment in Buddhist meditation, and why I could turn an
artistic practice into an exercise in self-awareness. As I drew I became increasingly aware
that each circle‘s dual aspect could be used as a vehicle for contemplating the ongoing
process of the body/mind‘s sense of what happens inside the body and in the world
outside—called interoception‘ and exteroception‘ in cognitive science, (Fig. 2.10). Of
21
course, in Buddhism a great deal of attention is placed on the body-mind relationship.
Fig. 2.10: Inward and outward arcs in the human body/mind (idea by Wilber 1999c)
Illustration drawing by Sulien in Newcastle (2005)
Because the curved lines of the brush are never quite the same on repetition, the
emptiness and fullness of each circle are likewise never quite the same. I may have used
the same kind of paper, the same brush, the same Chinese ink and water, and the same
simple movements of arm and wrist, but the results varied widely. The experience of this on
a day-to-day basis routinely impressed me with the truth of the Buddha Sakyamuni‘s
teaching on the illusory appearances of all passing phenomena which vanish wherever
they arise‘. (Han Shan [1546-1623] translated by Lu K'uan Yu 2006:86)
Why did the results always appear so differently? The answer is that my desire to
draw a perfect circle as symbolically pure as the lotus was mixed with the conditions of
production (my physical actions and the materials I used). In Buddhism both the causal
ambitions of the mind and the bodily conditions through which the mind tries to act are
considered to be never stable. When brought together, as when I repeatedly drew circles,
the results always led to different appearances. Surely this is what Sakyamuni meant by
the illusory appearance of all passing phenomena‘. Even when I varied the technique and
Inward
Inward
Outward
22
attempted to create circles with the ink-drop technique, my circles, as they came into being,
never became actual circles, except in the most crude and approximate sense (Figs. 2.11,
2.12, 2.13). They were circles that vanished wherever they arose‘. To an artist-meditator
who had become alert to the illusory nature of mental phenomena (that is, one‘s internal
world of appearances and responses to external stimuli), the routine work of drawing
circles was a method for developing an understanding of the appearance of all forms.
Fig. 2.11: From pre-meditation art practice, 2005-2006
Fig. 2.12: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006
23
Fig. 2.13: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006
Fig. 2.14: From pre-meditation art practice, 2006
The ever-changing dual apparent aspect of the circle, which has both form and
emptiness‘ (see Fig. 2.14), helped me contemplate the Buddha's question: If void-ness is
your seeing, since it has already become your perception, then how can it be empty? If an
(external) thing is your seeing and has already become your perception, how can it be
external?‘ (Han Shan, translated by Lu K'uan Yu 2006:151). It seemed to me that if
meditation can take the form of a routine drawing practice that generates a sense of
ever-changing emptiness within an ever-changing circle-like form, then I could also begin
to discover how to empty myself within the drawing and perceiving of shapes. My artistic
engagement with the double-ness of the circle would perhaps eventually become a way of
emptying myself, and at that point I would have freed myself of ego.
2.4 Day-to-day studio art practice
I have a straight body and fingers circling around a brush
Turning the brush through ink to penetrate Chinese paper
24
And
Many designs fly in the mind
When I repeat, doing the same circle, symbolic of the lotus
Many images come and go like clouds in the mind
When I repeat, doing the same circle, symbolic of the lotus
It is the Dharma of the eye
And then
The trace passes the starting point, passes the end of the circle
With the sense of the consciousness of mind
Or
However
And
Nervous sensitivity at the touch of an object
Therefore
But the feeling of words‘ is not made by nerves
And
(Note written 18 December 2005 in Newcastle)
25
In my day-to-day studio practice, I was only interested in returning afresh to the
creative act in an aware, alert state, even though entering the studio itself often seemed to
be a repeated act springing from intuition, habit, and memory (Fig. 2.15). Since I was a
Buddhist, of course, my aim had been to free myself of the mind and physical body, so in
the studio I also tried to overcome intuitional controls or limits on my artistic behaviour. First
I tried to direct my activities so that I can enter a state of intuitive awareness‘.
Fig. 2.15: From pre-meditation practice, 2006
Hence I did not seek inspiration from the sensory and intellectual realms of my
body/mind or from habits and memories in the stream of intuition. When I painted I wanted
to get to the essence of intuitive awareness and to free my imagination from body/mind. To
some extent the process would be similar to Husserl's eidetic reduction‘, by which one
pursues true knowledge by freeing oneself of presuppositions.
Perhaps an artist can achieve a kind of freedom when he or she uses drink and drugs
to loosen the hold of reason and inhibitions. Such an artist would then attain a transient
freedom within art practice, and discover intuitions and their relationship to maximum
possibility‘, i.e., the fullest realization of personal memories and imaginations from the past.
At that moment the intuitions (coming from habit and memory) are reflected in action and
seem freed from boundaries. For the non-Buddhist, the artist has become a free being, at
least for a time. However, from the Buddhist perspective, the action of art practice of using
drugs or alcohol and so on to loosen consciousness is still an illusion, because it is habit
and intuition-based.
26
Thus in my day-to-day art practice I had always rejected using drink and drugs (and
still do), but still my drawing seemed to come immediately from intuition (habit). I
repeatedly drew circles or dropped ink in circular shapes, and though both approaches
yielded approximately the same marks through manipulation of brush and ink, all the marks
seem to have been produced haphazardly. I was still missing the happy medium‘ between
absolute geometric perfection (which would, after all, be impersonal and mechanical) and
the kind of ordinary, run-of-the-mill circle that one would expect from some person with a
brush. I wanted the circles to achieve a kind of spirit resonance‘ with one another,
something that could not be achieved from building on past memory or personal habit
alone. Each circle would have to admit‘ that the ink spreads differently each time and that it
marks the differences of ever-varying intention, even though it is in close harmony with its
neighbours.
Fig. 2.16: From pre-meditation practice, 2006
In fact I perceived the changing form of each circle as I completed it, and I could
concentrate on producing each circle as directly and simply as possible (Fig. 2.16), but I
still could not consistently produce pure circles because my senses and perceptions were
intruding. Buddha has said: 'Form and Mind and all causes arising therefore, all mental
conditions and all causal phenomena are but manifestations of the mind'. (Han Shan in Lu
K‘uan Yu 2006:57). So could I draw a circle without the mind? Would it be possible to let
27
the mind be empty in art practice?
I was beginning to realise just how independent the process of perception is from the
bodily mechanisms that provide sensory stimuli of external things, like circles drawn in
black Chinese ink. The senses exist apart from phenomena. My aim in drawing circles was
that it would eventually lead to Buddhist stillness and emptiness and enable me to unify my
senses with the perceptual and phenomenological workings of my mind. If I could achieve
this state I would be able to draw perfect circles through the harmonic interaction of my
outward senses and my inward phenomena: these would function together as
automatically as breathing, and the perfect circles would be repeated over and over again
without conscious effort, and without ego.
Fig. 2.17: From post-meditation art practice, 2006
Since making the act of brushing the circle the equivalent to meditation, I have been
able to let go of all my desires, all my worries and all my fears during the act; I allow my
emotions to evaporate. I try to achieve through the act of drawing a still and empty mind in
which my visually-oriented thoughts are the lotus, producing circle after circle in harmony
with the act of meditative breathing in and breathing out. Once I made the drawing of
circles a meditative practice (a state in which the moving of a brush becomes as
contemplative an act as moving my breath in and out), body and the mind have, little by
little, achieved unity, as reflected in Fig. 2.17 and in contrast to Fig. 2.16, for example. Later,
28
in Chapter 3, we will turn to a Western view of unified consciousness in the work of the
German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). This is widely seen as a non-Buddhist
understanding of the mind/body relationship equivalent to the meditative state I have
described above. For example, Martinus Nijhoff, the Dutch commentator on Husserl,
describes the philosopher‘s understanding of consciousness as a mental state in which
one is not occupied by the ego, or even the senses; rather consciousness is a condition in
which one has become harmonious and unified physically and mentally. I will explore the
details of this interesting Western philosophical process in my next chapter, but first I wish
to support my ideas about meditation and drawing with a general concept of harmonised
consciousness, a state of mind that is difficult to achieve in everyday life without practices
that enhance one‘s mind/body relationship. Nijhoff comments: In an era where
transplantations are commonplace, the body becomes experienced as replaceable, part by
part‘ (Nijhoff 1997:58). Yes, the body often seems to be no more than an ad hoc
assemblage of working parts, bound eventually to fail, and it is neither harmonious nor still.
However, I would argue that through the meditative practice of drawing circles a state of
unified consciousness can be achieved.
2.5 The methodology of Buddhist meditation practice
My meditation practice, which I learned from Venerable Buddhist Master Cheng
Chen-Huang in Taiwan in 2004, is based on breathing (Fig. 18). When I exhale, I visualize
the exhaled breath beginning at my abdomen, passing through the chest, and leaving my
body through the nose-tip. At each stage I mentally 'let it go.' This is the pathway of each
exhaled breath.
Fig. 2.18: Sulien seated in meditation
When I inhale, the beginning of the breath is at the nose-tip, the middle of the breath at the
chest and the end of the breath at the abdomen, and then I mentally note that the breath
circulates through the right and left buttocks, the right and left legs, to the right and left feet.
This is the pathway of each inhaled breath.
I take note of the 12 points of each breath-cycle—abdomen, chest, nose-tip, then
nose-tip, chest, abdomen, right and left buttocks, right and left legs, and right and left
feet—to make the mind firm and still, to limit extraneous mental activity so that mindfulness
and self-awareness can easily arise while the body relaxes. After my attention settles on
these 12 points, I can then let them go, and concentrate only on the nose-tip or upper lip,
where the air passes. I need not follow the breath but just focus my mind at the nose-tip in
front of me. There is no need to think of anything special. I just concentrate on this simple
task for now, with continuous presence of mind. There is nothing more to do, just breathing
out and in. Soon the mind becomes peaceful, the breath refined. The body/mind lightens
and warms up. This is the proper, simple state for the work of meditation, which I practice
day-to-day (Fig. 2.19).
30
Fig. 2.19: Letting everything go in meditation, before art practice, 2005-2006
When I first direct my mind‘s focus to my nose-tip, the breathing may still be rough
and shallow, but I do not seek to control it. Instead, I just need to look at it for the breathing
to become calm and steady. It takes some time. At the beginning, one‘s mind still tends to
wander. Odd, insignificant memories float up. Wilber has very clearly described this
beginning or entry stage of meditation: Months can be spent at the movies watching the
subliminal submergent re-emerge in awareness and dance before the inward eye‘. (Wilber,
1999b:179) In the Buddhist view, one must let go of these, since they are illusory,
impermanent, and passing tales.
I may adjust my meditation posture to suit different weather conditions. If the weather
is cold, I simply sit in a chair and rest my feet on the ground. If the weather is warm, I sit in
the lotus position on a cushion on the floor. In either case, I concentrate my entire
body/mind on breathing in and breathing out.
My approach to meditation may be described as receptive‘ more than concentrative.‘
In Wilber‘s description of these two types of meditation, and the way in which a guru
overcomes old resistances and encourages new transformations via both approaches, he
writes, In concentrative meditation, the special condition has a defined form; in receptive
31
meditation, it is formless—both are enforced special conditions, however, and the
individual who drops his formless or defocal awareness is chastised just as severely as the
one who drops the koan‘. (Wilber 1999b:177; koan refers to the oral traditions, stories,
parables, etc. that are used to illustrate truth in Zen Buddhism)
After my body is relaxed and warm, and mind is clear, light, and peaceful, I will
continue to sit in meditation for around 45 to 48 minutes before I start to paint, so that I
reach a state of deeper insightfulness‘ (mind concentrated and receptive, yet free of
cogitation), greater energy and silence.
When I loosely hold the brush over the Chinese paper, I breathe in, and from the time
I begin to turn the brush around the circle to the time the brush returns to the starting point,
I breathe out. To describe this meditative drawing as a kind of breathing is apt, because my
meditation focuses awareness on the ever-changing patterns of my breath. When the
practitioner breathes in or breathes out and contemplates the essential impermanence or
the essential disappearance of desire or cessation or letting go, he abides peacefully in the
observations of the objects of mind, persevering, fully awake, clearly understanding his
state, gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this life‘. (Thich Nhat Hanh. 1997:8)
After I began the meditation practice, the drawn line of the circle turned out to be
somewhat thicker than before. The evidence for this even showed up on the back of the
paper—the ink seeped through. But most importantly, the interior and exterior circle lines of
the rings of ink were much improved (compare Figs. 2.20 and 2.21).
Fig. 2.20: Pre-meditation, 2006 Fig. 2.21: Post-meditation, 2006
32
2.6 The physical aspect of Buddhist meditation
As illustrated in Zen and the Art of Happiness‘ (Fig. 2.22), Richard Davidson (far right)
took a PET scan on the 14th Dalai Lama. Davidson has conducted several experiments
comparing the brains of monks who meditate with those of people who do not. In one, he
found electrical activity in the left-hand frontal lobe of meditating monks‘ brains. In another
(below left and right), he found high levels of gamma activity associated with positive
emotions in the brains of meditating monks, but far less in the brains of ordinary people
who tried to meditate while being scanned (from What makes you happy?‘, The Sunday
Times Magazine, October 2, 2005).
The health benefits of meditation have been well-known for some time, and as the
science continues to improve gradually, the findings are popularized through in-depth
feature reporting in magazines like Time (Fig. 2.23, cover of the 4th August 2003 edition).
Fig. 2.22: Zen and the Art of Happiness Fig. 2.23: Time (August 2003)
Prof. Fred Travis of Maharishi University attached four leads to four points on the
scalp of an experienced meditator who practiced Tibetan Buddhist meditation. The
meditator was capable of a very high level of concentration. At the beginning of the
meditation, the brain waves (the front and back brain are charted in red and yellow
33
respectively) were still very active, but as the meditation progressed the brain wave activity
attenuated, until the waves became calm and steady (see Figs. 2.24.1–4;
http://www.mum.edu/tm).
Fig. 2.24: Brain patterns during meditation
2.7 Meditation practice as art practice
Any state of unified consciousness involves an awakened sense of no time‘; my
routine of practising drawing circles emerges from this timelessness‘. As I have mentioned
earlier, my intention is that when each circle is drawn on the paper there is stillness in my
body/mind. This art practice is an activity that combines concentration and relaxation, and
my circle practice progresses simply and effortlessly by meditation (Fig. 2.25).
Fig. 2.25: Post-meditation, 2006
For Husserl transcendentally pure consciousness means reducing phenomena under
contemplation into pure consciousness; pure consciousness is without ego control.
Therefore, Husserl's getting rid of the ego seems quite similar to the Buddhist emphasis on
non-self and meditation with an empty mind. As meditation and art practice were repeated
and integrated, I discovered that my breathing was gradually becoming deep, inward, and
calm. This differed greatly from my earlier studio art practice, when my emotions and stray
thoughts and perceptions still interfered with my movements. Buddhists teach that since all
phenomena come and go, it is best to just let things be‘ without trying to hold on and use
force. If the artist is immersed in phenomena, he or she works with conditions imposed: the
body that we are feeling, the perceptions of the mind, the emotions, the concepts, and so
on, and they build up and are compounded. Everyone has noticed that the mind‘s creations
are always moving and fluid; the mind is looking for something, so it wants to change
whatever conditions it finds itself in, and its desires rise and fall like waves. Too often it fails
to find the stillness and emptiness from which everything emerged.
2.8 Overcoming intuition
Before merging meditation and art practice, I often found that while drawing a circle,
even during the action of turning the brush, my mind and physical body were going
separate ways. At this point, the circles were coming from intuitive, reflective action:
intuitive in that it arose from acquired physical habit that no longer required deliberate
thought, and reflective in that it was somehow dependent on something else. As a result
the circles and the sequences lacked consistency of pattern. The marks of the brush on
paper never lie: they repeatedly demonstrated the conscious ego‘s habitual reliance on
intuition and the appearance of things in the present (Fig. 2.26), compare with the (Fig.
2.27) from that evidence, I came to understand the habit of intuition, which is very
deep-seated in the conscious ego. In Buddhist teaching, however, intuition‘ itself is
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reflective of past memory and experience, and so exists in time.
Fig. 2.26: Pre-meditation, 2006 Fig. 2.27: Post-meditation, 2006
Therefore, when the intuition functions (and it always does so without deliberative
thinking), it is directly reflected in the action. The intuition follows past habit, but as it
manifests itself in action it continues to feed back on and build up the conscious ego. Such
intuition might not involve definite feelings and practices of touch built up by habit, but even
so, I was still engaging with my memories and the power of my imagination in reflective
action, so in this case my artistic intuition was still not letting me gain access to true
freedom. There was still a boundary.
We may contrast this with what Husserl points out about the possibility of intuitive
unity‘: In spite of the lack of connection between objects of perception and objects of
imagination, an intuitive unity of a kind which can contribute to the (relative) determination
of individual objects given in experience is still possible‘. (Husserl 1948, rpt. 1973: 174)
Husserl still allows for intuition, but in Buddhist meditation, intuitions must be overcome, for
they are reflective outgrowths of the realm of outward appearances. They are the inward
objects to which the mind is attached, just as the senses are the outward objects to which
the body is attached. The Buddha once declared, Form and Mind, and all causes arising
there from, all mental conditions and all causal phenomena are but manifestations of the
mind‘. (Han Shan in Lu K‘uan Yu 2006:57). My earlier studio practice in drawing circles
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may have been frustrating, but it was instructive because I became keenly aware of this
truth. By entering meditation before practicing art, and finally integrating meditation and art
practice, I established mindfulness only of breathing in and breathing out so that there was
no space for intuition, and hence no chance for my body and its movements to be affected
by intuition. The circles no longer emerged from intuitive and reflective action (Fig. 2.27). In
the end, the action was unified with the breathing in and out of meditation.
Now when I attune myself to the breathing cycle in meditation I can contemplate the
impermanence of the lotus. When I move the ink-laden brush and make circular lines one
after the other on the paper, I can contemplate the unfixed nature of the symbolic circle. My
enhanced understanding of the circle is equivalent to my enhanced awareness of the lotus.
The lotus blossom becomes a circle full on the outside and empty on the inside. The
repetition accentuates the purity of the emptiness I experience. Thus the essence of the
Buddhist lotus is given expression.
2.9 Comparing with other artists: abstract expressionists, performance
artists
Many other artists past and present have tried to escape the perceptual and
conceptual boundaries of their creative practices. While there are isolated examples of
artists challenging the controlling influence of the rational mind (a single example from
many would be the 18th century sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt), it was not until the
early 20th century that whole schools of artists began to explore deliberately altered states
of consciousness. By the end of World War I, European culture was ready to embark on
Dadaism, Surrealism and Expressionism. The Surrealist painter André Masson
(1896-1987) created automatic drawings‘ while under the influence of drugs or altered
states of mind brought about by deliberately depriving himself of food and sleep. Masson‘s
drawings are products of an artist who had been physically and psychologically wounded
during World War I and who exhausted and starved himself to access intuitive resources
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not available to one who treats the production of art as a creative skill bounded by
established aesthetic principles. The outcomes of these experiments (as in, for example,
Fig. 2.28) are sometimes difficult to read‘ because of their unexpectedly tangled contours.
Fig. 2.28: André Masson, Automatic Drawing (1924)
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Masson]
Modern European art, and Western contemporary art practices in general, developed
from the fertile experiments of the experimental art movements at the beginning of the 20th
century of which Masson is a typical example. The Surrealist‘s automatic drawings
prefigure celebrated examples of the improvised gestural methods, known as action
painting‘, of artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956).
Jackson Pollock, seeking greater freedom in his art and escaping from the
established routine of presenting forms and colors in broad strokes, developed the idea of
painting by dropping or flinging paint from the brush (Figs. 2.29, 2.30). He discovered that
this technique resulted in a freer expression of the paint on the canvas. He thus placed his
canvas on the floor so that on which he could let the paint alight, and he would not have to
distort the form of each drop or streak. He preserved the originality of each drop.
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Fig. 2.30: Jackson Pollock, Number 23 (1948)
Although Pollock went a long way in eliminating intentional thought in the painting
process, including in the physical movements required to produce the art, he did not
eliminate it entirely. He was still bound by the control of intuition and the idea of drop
painting. In the end Pollock used alcohol to lose the consciousness of the body/mind, a
technique that gives the illusion of emptiness.
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Franz Kline (1910-1962), a close contemporary of Pollock, produced a large number
of abstract black-and-white paintings with broad, sweeping brushstrokes that remind many
viewers of Chinese characters, though Kline denied the connection and had never studied
Chinese calligraphy. The strokes appear to be very free, spontaneous, and they are
undeniably powerful, but Kline actually practiced them extensively on drafts before
producing the final paintings. In 1960, the art historian Werner Haftmann described what
happened when Kline shifted to the larger formats:
When Kline attempted to transfer his symbols to larger formats, his body movements
enhanced the power of his lines, which acquired an amazing expressiveness. The
cosmic existence, a vast oppressive space, seems to invade the pictorial field; the
framework of heavy signs seeks to withstand it, to resist its weight or to strike back
against the crushing power of the void. (Haftmann 1960: 352)
Kline‘s emphasis on the spontaneity of movement and gesture and Haftmann‘s insight on
the way these paintings evoke the vastness of the cosmos and its powers indicate that
Kline may have possessed an outlook and method similar to artists working from a
Buddhist perspective, like me. He was definitely exposed to Eastern art and perspectives
through fellow painters and other contemporaries—it was in the air‘, so to speak, but there
is no indication that he ever seriously immersed himself in the study of Buddhism and
meditation. Kline‘s practice was similar to my work in the studio insofar that a long period of
practice and of training the hand‘ preceded the execution of the finished works.
Both Pollock and Kline, it should be noted, admired and were influenced by the work
of an older contemporary, Mark Tobey (1890-1976), who was explicitly interested in
Eastern religions. He accepted the Baha‘i faith early in his career and retained great
openness toward the study of Buddhism, meditation, calligraphy, haiku poetry, and so on.
In 1934, he visited China and then Japan, where he stayed for a month in a Buddhist
temple to study Zen, meditation, and calligraphy. He once wrote:
Let nature take over in your work.‘ These words from my old friend Takizaki were at
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first confusing but cleared to the idea – Get out of the way.‘ We hear some artists
speak today of the act of painting. This in its best sense could include the meaning of
my old friend. But a State of Mind is the first preparation and from there this action
proceeds. Peace of Mind is another ideal, perhaps the ideal state to be sought for in
the painting and certainly preparatory to the act.
This is not easy to accomplish, but in a highly industrialized and competitive society it
could be a fine antidote. Not to look for fine draughtsmanship nor fine color – perhaps
no color – but directness of spirit will become for us a new point of view as the arts of
the East and of the West draw closer together. (Tobey 1958:20)
Tobey was certainly one of the earliest prominent Western artists to have had his
perceptions and even his approach toward painting profoundly informed and influenced by
Buddhist teachings, and his assertion on peace of mind tallies with my own developing
approach at this time.
Although the Buddhist-influenced arts of Japan had been influencing Western art for a
long time (e.g., van Gogh and ukiyo-e), beginning in the 1950s in San Francisco,
conditions became ripe for an explosion of interest in Buddhism and its practices among
artists. First, there was a sizable Asian population, and second, an understanding of Zen
Buddhism was being disseminated through the works of pioneering translators, teachers
and scholars like Kenneth Rexroth, Shunryu Suzuki and Alan Watts (Kowinsky 2004).
Watts had an especially strong influence through his regular radio broadcasts, an influence
that he himself acknowledged:
It is therefore also said – perhaps with truth – that my easy and free-floating attitude
to Zen was largely responsible for the notorius Zen boom‘ which flourished among
artists and pseudointellectuals‘ in the late 1950s, and led on to the frivolous beat
Zen‘ of Kerouac‘s Dharma Bums, of Franz Kline‘s black and white abstractions, and
of John Cage‘s silent concerts. (Watts 2007: 248)
Each of the people Watts mentions incorporated Zen Buddhism somehow into their artistic
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practice. The composer John Cage‘s (1912-1992) celebrated silent piano piece 4’33” is
now considered a classic expression of Zen-influenced thinking, as it leaves each listener
completely free to hear‘ whatever he or she wishes to—the stirring of audience members,
the ambient noise in the performance space, etc. Cage also developed aleatoric
composition, i.e., composition in which chance and randomness plays a role: an open
acceptance of chance elements is one of the distinguishing features of Zen-influenced art.
The silence in some of John Cage‘s compositions found their visual counterpart in the
blank white spaces of his paintings (Cage 1963; Munroe 2009).
Cage, who also happened to be a great mushroom enthusiast, is known to have
deliberately endured the pain and danger of eating small quantities of poisonous (not
deadly) mushrooms that he believed would help him achieve a heightened state of
consciousness. The heightened consciousness was produced through the sheer force of
his thinking or belief (cogito) in overcoming the mushrooms‘ effects.
A painter who, like Pollock, is celebrated within the tradition of creative
experimentation is Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). He was severely alcoholic through
much of his career; later in life, though he managed to stop drinking, he continued to
produce paintings, drawings and sculptures while suffering from Alzheimer‘s disease. Even
in the late works (Fig. 2.31), de Kooning retained a remarkably solid grasp of the line. In
each period there was a release from conscious intentionality, though judging from the
works‘ critical reception, the earlier means of release seems to be favored.
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Fig. 2.31: Willem de Kooning, Untitled (1988)
By the 1960s it had become accepted that avant-garde artists should, if they were to
maintain cultural progress, continually step beyond the perceptual and conceptual limits
established by previous generations of artistic experiments. At this time, artists began to
explore the nature of consciousness through experimental practices such as performance
art and installation art. For example, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) stretched artistic
boundaries through his highly ritualistic performance works which involved bodily and
mental endurance. In his 1974 performance piece, I Like America and America Likes Me
(Fig. 2.32), Beuys flew to New York and was taken to the gallery by ambulance. He
wrapped himself in a heavy cloth, held a shepherd‘s staff, and remained in a room with a
coyote for three days, during which time the coyote tore the cloth to shreds. At the end of
the performance, he left for the airport, again by ambulance. This way, he managed never
to touch American ground during his entire stay.
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Fig. 2.32: Joseph Beuys, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974)
Several performance artists today continue in the tradition of putting themselves
through extremes of physical and mental duress in the course of their performances. Their
efforts are not intended to produce a lasting artwork that may be collected, bought and sold
in the conventional sense—they rather seek to work a transformative effect on themselves
and their viewers as well. Alistair MacLennan, for example, developed sustained works that
pushed the limits of physical endurance (Fig. 2.33). Once an actuation‘ (his term for his
performances) i